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Thoughts on post-Abe Japan in foreign policy

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After more than seven years of steady rule, Shinzo Abe’s (pictured) resignation as Japan’s prime minister has once again put the country’s foreign policy into the world’s spotlight. With the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) racing for the selection of new party leader and later on, the nation’s prime minister, several possible candidates have come to the fore. Apart from the ambitious Shigeru Ishiba who attempted to challenge Abe for the party’s leadership in the past, others such as Yoshihide Suga (current Cabinet Secretary) and Fumio Kishida, are expected to stand as contenders for the top post within the LDP as well as the government.

First, the perception of China within the Japanese public and LDP, has been at a low level even before the COVID-19 pandemic struck Japan. According to Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes survey in late 2019, as much as 85% of Japanese public viewed China negatively ⸺ a figure that put Japan as the country which had the most negative view of China among the 32 countries polled that year. More importantly, such survey was conducted months before the three events: the spread of COVID-19 pandemic, the passing of the Hong Kong security law and the continuing dispute of the Senkaku (or Diaoyu) Islands. With all these three issues involving China converging at the same time, it will be challenging to expect the Japanese public will have a more positive view of Beijing this year.

The US-China rivalry today has also entered uncharted waters in which military conflict is no longer a distant dream for many. Given its vested relationships with both US and China, such challenge remains to be the most difficult for Abe’s successor to grapple with. On one hand, Tokyo has to safeguard its close trade ties with China while on the other, the former has to depend on its security alliance with the US to safeguard both national and regional security against hypothetical threats (including China). As reported by Kyodo News in last July, Suga himself was aware of such dilemma as a middle power and even recognised that the balance of power strategy might not be suitable anymore given the current freefall relationship between Washington and Beijing. Instead, Suga alerted of the possibility in siding with one of the two powers as the eventual option for Japan in the near future. While he did not mention which country to side in case such scenario becomes a reality, political observers should not be too conclusive in that he will choose China as opposed to the US if he becomes the new Japanese prime minister.

Last, Abe’s successor inherits his legacy of Japan as a proactive leader in the Southeast Asia region. As a person without much experience in foreign policy, it is challenging for Suga (more than Kishida and Ishiba) to preserve Japan’s leadership status in Asia without heavy reliance on the foreign policy establishment. That said, the current Abe administration’s policy of encouraging its manufacturers to shift production from China into either Japan’s own shores or Southeast Asian countries, will likely to be continued in consideration of the urgency compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic and the freefalling US-China relations.

With Japan’s collective pursuit with the US, India and Australia for the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) vision as a security counter against Beijing in Southeast Asia, on top of Tokyo’s national economic interest to reduce its overdependence on China, the country fits well into the sort of external power needed by the ASEAN member states.

ANBOUND Research Center (Malaysia) is an independent think tank situated in Kuala Lumpur, registered (1006190-U) with laws and regulations of Malaysia. The think tank also provides advisory service related to regional economic development and policy solution. For any feedback, please contact: [email protected].  

The opinions expressed in the above article are those of the author alone, and do not reflect any opinions on the part of EU Reporter.

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